Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Politics of the Possible


Socialist Kshama Sawant has gotten over the first hurdle in her race for Seattle City Council and it was a high one: to secure a spot in the November run-off election, she needed to finish at least second and ensure that the victor’s total was below 50%.

She did both by receiving 35% of the total and her incumbent opponent coming in at 47%. Doing that required substantial numbers – her final count is nearly 43,000 votes — and opens the possibility of a real, if outside, chance at assuming office in 2014.

That Sawant, a self-identified and unapologetic socialist, could achieve this should not have come as a complete surprise. Recent polls have indicated a widespread sympathy to socialism, a sign that the many years of indoctrination equating “free markets and free people,” capitalism and democracy, and of there being “no alternative” to neoliberal austerity are finally losing their power to convince.

Sawant’s candidacy is the first to give a concrete indication that these attitudes are beginning to find expression in terms of real political power.

Pushing on an Open Door (Again)

As I observed in a piece on her previous campaign for state legislature, by running from the left in a left-leaning district, Sawant was “pushing on an open door” for electoral offices ripe for the picking.  While Sawant has again shown just that,  this doesn’t mean that these offices will be easily obtained.  The influence of money in politics remains enormous and, in the case of federal office, still likely an insurmountable obstacle for non-corporate candidates.

What Sawant has demonstrated is that for local and possibly statewide office, grassroots networks of support can compensate for the inability to purchase major media “buys” in television, radio, and major newspapers.  Foremost among these is social media which the Sawant campaign, by all accounts, is very savvy in its use of.  There is no doubt that many of her supporters learned about her campaign via Facebook, Twitter or Tumbler, all which Sawant blanketed with information, providing voters unmediated access to her platform.

In fact, it might be the case that what money can purchase — slick television spots, glossy flyers, and full page spreads in newspapers — has less and less value.  Just as a pre-packaged tomato of “perfect” size and color is by now a predictor of bland taste and mealy texture, so does an airbrushed, perfectly coiffed candidate pleading with unctuous sincerity for “your support” scream “corporate sellout.” Sawant provides hope that this brand of candidate and the whole pay-to-play system it supports could go the way of the Hostess Twinkie with the right pushes.

Sawant is about as far from a Twinkie as can be imagined. In her publicity shots, she comes across as distinctly unstylish. In her public appearances, she is appropriately prickly in her no-bullshit response to questions from the media while her endorsement in the alternative paper the Stranger described her voice as “as loud as an air horn”.   But rather than count against her, these qualities are like dirt scuffs on a head of organic lettuce, the purple of an heirloom tomato, or a slightly misshapen peach –irregularities that are positive signs of authenticity. Sawant is not another product bought by big money and sold to the public to do big money’s bidding.  She should be increasingly typical of candidates challenging the long-standing domination of the political system by corporate and financial elites.

All of this explains why the five-to-one ratio in campaign contributions didn’t allow Sawant’s opponent to walk away with a majority.  Money can’t buy most of the things that matter in life and it shouldn’t be able to buy our political sympathies.

Sawant wasn’t afraid of the firehose of money pointed at her and neither should we be.

Sawant in Power

It is possible that Sawant will ride the wave of disgust to victory in November.

But her ultimate success and that of other insurgent candidates will require that she go beyond a negative critique and show that she is able to develop a positive program that directly benefits her constituents.  Her website indicates that she is fully aware of this, her call for a $15 local minimum wage makes an an excellent starting point. However, municipal wage ordinances (one of which I worked on in my brief stint as a Green Party Alderman) are often difficult to implement so that they cover more than a small fraction of workers.  (Generally, they can only apply to municipal contractors and subcontractors.) Other aspects of Sawant’s platform, e.g. a millionaires tax, are likely to run into difficulties as states often impose strict limits on revenue options available to localities.  That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t propose these, but rather that her supporters need to be fully aware of the political impediments to her achieving even the beginnings of her full program.

What will help Sawant and other alternative candidates is an awareness of what can be achieved on a municipal level.  One of those leading the way is Richmond, California Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin who has recently come to prominence for her use of eminent domain to acquire foreclosed properties, a move that Wall Street responded to with fury, landing the story on the front page of the New York Times.  This should be seen by Sawant and other progressive in local politics as a first step in a municipal program aimed at developing local economies, one which would include encouragement of worker self-directed enterprises along the lines discussed by Gar Alperowitz and Richard Wolff.

Another McLaughlin achievement involved requiring the Richmond police to ensure that protestors engaging in civil disobedience would be treatedly leniently in their arrests and released immediately following their citations.  If Sawant takes office, she should work to secure the same result in Seattle, being ready to exert her authority over the uniform services who often resist local officials whom they see as “meddling” in police business.  She should also be prepared to subpoena documents and hold hearings on possible collaboration of federal and local law enforcement agencies taking place behind the backs of local officials as was surely the case in the nationally coordinated crackdown on Occupy protestors in the fall of 2011.  Given that another upsurge in Occupy-style activism seems inevitable, a reliable ally of the movement in local government armed with legal oversight authority could be a important check on the power of the state to repress and undermine protest.

Socialism’s Comeback

As mentioned above, Sawant’s success was achieved not in spite but because of her open embrace of socialism.  By a converse logic, those candidates who fail to openly embrace socialism in deed and in name will be reasonably viewed with some suspicion by the left.   That includes those parties, most notably the Greens who, due to their historical roots in European third-wayism, have shunned an open allegiance to a socialist platform.  The Greens should consider revisiting their key values along these lines and keep an eye open to the possibility of a merger should Sawant’s Socialist Alternative party develop a critical mass.  If they fail to do so, they will be increasingly seen as out of touch and as an obstacle to rather than as a vehicle for the change that is necessary.

Even more so, the same can be said about those groups holding out hope for “reforming” a Democratic Party into a vehicle for addressing the increasingly grotesque gap in income, wealth and political access, the erosion of constitutional rights, and the looming environmental catastrophe.  The Democrats are by now notorious not just for neglect of their activist base, but as the prime promoter of the catastrophic regime of neoliberal austerity. Given the party’s objectively reactionary policies on the military, civil rights, economic and environmental justice — now confirmed by two terms of the Obama administration — it stands to reason that progressive advances within the Democratic Party are now being seen in a darker light.  While minor shifts in policy do matter to particular constituencies, they also need to be seen in relation to the long run where they function as propping up a rotting partisan infrastructure setting a low upper limit on what can be achieved.

One such short-run victory occurred recently in New Haven in which the city’s main labor unions elected a slate of candidates to office, assuming control of the Board of Alderman.  This was discussed with some enthusiasm in establishment labor and progressive Democrat circles.   But outside of these it made barely a ripple, viewed as yet more of the same politics practiced by the unions for as long as can be remembered.   Had the labor unions run on a Labor Party line, one which would be seen as a potential partner in a grand coalition with Greens and a burgeoning socialist party, this would have been something else entirely — a declaration of independence of labor from the bipartisan duopoly that has presided over labor’s descent into almost complete political irrelevance. As it was, the New Haven unions showed themselves unable to break with the long-established dysfunctional investment in the Democratic Party brand.

There is, however, something to be said for securing Democratic victories so long as these are understood within a broader strategic context that takes as necessary and inevitable the eventual wholesale defeat of Democratic candidates.  Specifically, it should be recognized that Sawant’s campaign is taking place in a city in which Democratic Party domination has been a given for several generations.  In Seattle, as in numerous others cities, the Republicans have been consigned to near insignificance, with their descent into rump party status increasingly assured as extremist elements intensify their grip. The Republican collapse is a double-edge sword for the Democrats. Just as it removes their main competition from the field, it also shines a light on the reality of what the Democrats represent, and many will not like what they see.  With the disappearance of the Republicans, the Democrats will face direct competition from candidates like Sawant running against their long-standing role as what Corey Robin called “the new party of austerity” and many voters will find it easy to make the right choice.

But for this dynamic to play out, Democrat machine dominance must come first. For this reason, third-party activists — even those having difficulty hiding their understandable contempt for some Democrats — should work to make this a reality,  holding their noses with the longer strategic perspective in view.

At the initial stages, where we still remain, progress will be slow.

The Sawant campaign is one small sign that the wheels are finally beginning to turn in the right direction.

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